The Editor ponders the future
For much of my motoring life, the hierarchy of car engines was clear, constant and relatively simple. The reciprocating internal combustion engine reigned supreme and the greater the number of cylinders, the more important it often was. The true enthusiast’s choice of fuel was petrol, with diesel an unfortunate option for the miser who had no ear for beauty and even less care for the health of their fellows.
History shows us moments when social orders changed irrevocably. These sometimes followed a deliberate revolution and were sometimes the secondary result of a great disaster, either natural or man-made. Whatever the cause, we can try to imagine the revulsion that individuals felt when their complacent assumption that things would remain the same forever was shattered.
In a diluted way, that is what many of us are now feeling. Enzo Ferrari
provocatively claimed that his car was the engine, typically an elegant looking V12, and the rest of the vehicle – suspension, wheels, tyres, seats – was thrown in for free. Once, if someone showed you their new car, the would-be enthusiast would waste no time in hiking up the bonnet and inspecting the powerplant. Today, the engine is frequently no thing of beauty, even if you can see it below plastic shrouds, and looking at it tells you little of the vehicle’s potential.
Should we care about engines any more? Most modern engines can be coaxed to produce performance that far exceeds your expectations of just a few years ago, yet using far less fuel. And they can be acoustically manipulated to thrill your ears, yet sound placid when you pootle past the neighbours. Quantitatively, they deliver more and demand less than ever before.
And therein lies the problem. An engine used to be, if I might make an analogy, like your Bank Manger. He or she might be agreeable or disagreeable, but you knew their name, could sit across the table from them, they responded to your needs if you presented them in the right way and you were accountable to them, and they to you. The modern engine is similar to Online Banking. On a good day it is ruthlessly efficient, but it is impersonal and can let you down and, when it does, you are lost. Just as on the internet there is no real social contract between you and an individual, so the modern engine’s loyalties are not to you. They are solely to its Maker, from delivering decent theoretical consumption and emission figures to ensuring that no parts are user replaceable – please go directly to your official service dealer. The Engine hides from you under the covers telling you to go away – it knows best. Does something like this deserve our affection?
The engine’s appeal was often as much to do with its sound as its performance. Just as individuals have their own idea of what constitutes good music, so do they have an idea of what constitutes a good engine sound. For some, noise is everything, and the recent controversy about Formula 1 has brought the heavy-metal brigade to the fore, all complaining that the cars are just not loud enough. They tend to remind me of the sort of chap who visits an Indian Restaurant on a Friday night and thinks the food is no good if he doesn’t have to end up draining the water from the flower vase to put out the fire in his throat. For some, though, the subtle, silenced hum of a Mercedes eight cylinder just going about its discreet but potent job is satisfying, whereas others still tingle to the, now rare, whirr of a Citroen Flat Twin. But now manufacturers shamelessly speak of synthesising the sound of an engine as though there is no satisfaction in relating what you are hearing to what is actually there. Get into a modern car of unknown specification and it can be hard to tell how many cylinders the engine has, how they are aligned or even, from the inside if not the outside, what fuel they use. A generation of cars making synthesised V12 Ferrari sounds at the press of a switch seems to be as childish as blurting “brrrrmmm, brrrrmmm” through spittle-flecked lips.
Looked at objectively, the Otto Cycle was always rather crude and inelegant, and the Diesel Cycle little better in theory and grubbier in practice. However, the engines that employed them afforded flexibility, when combined with a suitable transmission, and their very crudeness made them forgiving of bad maintenance. Today, if viewed as a source to generate the electricity to power a series hybrid (surely the only type of hybrid with any long-term potential) the only reason to choose a reciprocating petrol or diesel engine is that you are already making them, and can’t afford or be bothered to make anything else. Certainly Turbines or Wankel engines running at a constant optimum speed are far more smooth and efficient, and fuel cells are on the horizon. The conventional car engine has lost its sense of fun and wonder. After 130 years, we can’t complain – it’s amazing that it lasted so long. Best lay it to rest although, if you wish to post a eulogy this month, DTW will welcome it.